December 16, 2011

Horror Show

Filed under: analog,interfaces,life,lunacy,parenting — mhoye @ 10:20 pm

The Window

You’re no doubt familiar with the old horror-movie bit of the walking, lumbering monster being able to chase down a victim who’s running hard to get away from them. You know the drill: it doesn’t matter how hard, fast or far they’ve run, they could have the stamina of a marathoner and the speed of a sprinter: the moment they stop to catch their breath the monster is there, chainsaw, claws, mandibles or lurching undeadness to hand.

I’ve long thought that classic scares like that come from some common antecedent lodged deep in the collective unconscious, the common experiences that so many of us unsuspectingly have. But I hadn’t really thought about where that particular one might come from until I was trying to catch up with my daughter as she took off down the block, running flat out as fast as a two-year-old can go. While I walked after her at a stately pace, eventually catching her without particular effort.

So if you’re wondering what the original of that particular horror trope is, there you are.

It’s me.

October 21, 2011

To Be Left Unexamined

Filed under: analog,documentation,life — mhoye @ 10:28 pm

There is an unresolved question at the core of adulthood that hovers unnamed in that ineffable, ethereal moment in the late cold evening that terrible ideas start looking like great ideas and also you have the internet and a credit card.

I think I should probably just go to bed.

March 21, 2011

The Practical Implications Of The Democratization Of Agency At The Intersection Of The Transhumanist, Architectural Primitivist And Existentialist Fields

Filed under: academic,analog,awesome,doom,interfaces,vendetta,weird — mhoye @ 2:56 pm

Ideas get lodged in my head, and if they’re interesting enough – not necessarily “good”, mind you, but “interesting” – then I basically can’t do anything useful until I’ve gnawed away at them for hours. If it’s OCD that applies only to the inside of your head, is there even a word for that? Obsessive Compulsive Extrospection? Intramania? Let’s watch what happens as my friend Dave pursues his secret hobby of sneaking up on me and sticking broomhandles through the spokes of my brainwheels.

14:23 <@humph> mhoye:
14:31 < mhoye> what what
14:32 < mhoye> is he projecting directly onto the sensor?
14:32 < mhoye> That is so great.
14:37 <@humph> yeah
14:37 <@humph> seemed like you might like that
14:37 <@humph> that's what I do with software, done with cameras and lenses
14:38 < mhoye> Shadows on the cave.
14:38 < mhoye> I've never heard the shadows-on-cave-walls parable end with "We need a smarter cave".
14:39 < mhoye> But maybe that's an avenue of inquiry that's overdue.
14:43 < mhoye> About every third conversation I have with you makes me want to go sit in a dark corner for an hour or four just to turn the ideas over in my head, and then go write somebody else's doctoral thesis.
14:43 < mhoye> But I CANT because I have OTHER THINGS TO DO, dammit.
14:49 < mhoye> i don't even like you.


15:17 <mhoye> GAH

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable about this at all.

March 1, 2011

Into The Vide

Filed under: analog,digital,documentation,food,future,interfaces,science,toys — mhoye @ 10:37 pm

You Shouldn't Be Rapping

This week’s mad science news is that I’m starting to experiment with sous-vide cooking now that I’ve gotten around to building myself the necessary tool to do that, uninspiringly referred to as a sous-vide cooker.

The idea of sous-vide or “vacuum-sealed” cooking is that you can achieve various interesting results by cooking things at low and often quite specific temperatures for much longer periods of time. Eggs can actually be poached in the shell, for example, and meat of any thickness can be cooked to perfect medium rare all the way through before a quick searing on the grill to finish and serve.

It turned out to be pretty straightforward; you can use a slow cooker, but if you have a pot and a wall socket you can get the rest of the way there for about $100 in parts. While the resulting tool won’t get you all the way to the tenth-of-a-degree precision that professionals may insist they need, you can get an accuracy of plus or minus one degree for fraction of the cost.

That will be a familiar experience for anyone who’s ever bought professional lab equipment, no doubt; want that extra shaving of a decimal point’s worth of fractional accuracy? That’ll be a 20000% premium, please. Fortunately for me amateurishness can be pretty easy on the budget, at least in the short term.

This has been interesting reading, including the temperature charts that I was soliciting on twitter the other day. I’ve also been looking at this list of food temperatures from Health Canada, and a comparable U.S. Government food safety page with a just slightly jaundiced eye, as their tendency to err on the side of cook-until-rubberized is understandable. Even more unfortunately, most of the other sites I’ve found have all the familiar hallmarks of trending-term content farmers, and no.

Nevertheless, a quite high quality of ingredients and information about temperatures and times is important when one possible failure mode is the E-Coli-A-Gogo version of the Sea Monkeys Home Aquarium and a night in the ER vomiting out your lungs. Did that image dissuade you? It’s OK if it did, this isn’t for the culinarily timid or faint of gut. If not, excellent, let us press on; just don’t be doing this with discount meat, you know?

Assuming you have a medium-to-largeish pot to hand, you really don’t need much:

  • About a meter of loose extension cord wire and separate male and female ends you can attach it to. Three prong, please. You can pick this up at your local hardware store for between five and ten bucks, horribly overpriced at that.
  • A dozen or so smallish marrettes just to cleanly tie it all together. Hardware store, likewise.
  • The parts that your hardware store won’t have are a Temperature Controller, a solid state relay, and a thermocouple. Those links go to the places I got mine, and I was pretty happy doing business with them – they insisted on a shipping method with a tracking number to ship to Canada, but their prices were a lot better than I’ve found elsewhere, so.
  • A standalone electrical element like that one, and a wire rack of some kind that fits in the bottom of your pot. This is the part you can substitute with a non-digital slow-cooker (and possibly even a rice cooker?) if you’ve already got one of them.

I won’t go through the step-by-step of wiring all of that up, but email me if you like. The basic idea is this: power comes from the wall and goes both to the temperature controller and through one side of the relay. The other side of the relay, the control circuit part, is likewise wired up to the temperature controller (the documentation for that thing is here) as is the thermocouple. What you’ll end up with is essentially an extension cord with a thermometer switch; it switches on when the temperature drops below some value and off again once you get back where you want to be. You should clip the thermocouple wire to the side of your pot with a clothespin or something so it doesn’t touch the bottom of the pot, or your readings will get a bit skittish. The wire rack is just to keep the zip-lock freezer bags you’ll be using from touching the hot bottom of the pan directly.

That’s about it. The only thing I have left to do is to find myself a reasonably pretty project box for the whole assembly – right now it’s a little inelegant with all the wires hanging out, but it works like a charm. I’m going to be trying something a lot like this out tomorrow night, just to see what comes out the other end of it, and I have it on good authority that butter-poached ribeye is one of the greatest things in ever.

I’ll keep you informed!

February 22, 2011

The Process

Filed under: analog,interfaces,lunacy — mhoye @ 3:19 pm


Imagine if you would that somewhere in the bowels of CBC headquarters there is a great device of some kind, an upright metal sarcophagus adorned with a large bakelite dial and single green button. It is a worn gunmetal grey, the last and likely only one of its kind; a stern block of Cold-War-vintage engineering built to outlast the Soviet menace, its looming door secured with fist-sized bolts, arm-sized hinges and wide handwheels worn smooth from decades of wear. The dial twists from 1 to 10; next to the number 10 is a small plastic label, obviously affixed years later, and in small block capitals it reads “Jesse Jackson reading Green Eggs And Ham.

Next to 1 a similar label reads “Truman Capote trapped in a tumble dryer.” The metal below it is streaked red where it has been underlined repeatedly. It is lit by a single bare bulb, and the floor is strewn with pipes of various widths, threading away into the darkness.


Every few years in a ritual quietly observed by only a few of the CBC’s senior staff an elderly, bearded technician twists the dial left and right a few times before setting it back to 5, where a small maple leaf has been engraved in the steel. Somber, he presses the green button and the room fills with a low, mechanical hum. It subsides after a time; the handwheels begin to turn of their own accord. An acrid white smoke settles to the floor as the door opens, and Stuart Maclean emerges, reanimated by the most advanced technology that Avro Canada‘s secretive biological skunk-works could, once upon a time, provide.

He emerges from this Military Gothic process hungry and, for reasons no-one living can fully articulate, his first meal is invariably a damp mash made of Pierre Berton’s Toronto Star columns and Dave Barry’s earlier collections, their spines carefully removed. It is otherwise unseasoned.

As he stumbles forward, eyes unfocussed, he is promptly wrapped in the HBC blanket he will wear until he has fully recovered from the device’s more pernicious side effects, and is deemed ready to return to air.

I’m sure all that doesn’t happen, but whenever I hear Vinyl CafĂ©, I’m just a little more convinced that it must be something like that. Assembling the ambulatory thing that hosts it must be this horribly baroque, retromedically Lovecraftian vivigrafting process; it has to be. I may be the only person I know who can’t stand Stuart Maclean, but the fabrication of the eldrich mitocultural pastiche necessary to invoke him must be fascinating.

October 25, 2010


Filed under: analog,awesome,beauty,future,life,parenting,vendetta — mhoye @ 12:50 pm


July 4, 2010

But We Can’t Do You Love And Rhetoric Without The Blood

Filed under: analog,interfaces,life,lunacy,mail,parenting,science,vendetta,weird,work — mhoye @ 11:09 pm

Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’ve been cogitating; sometimes that takes time. In particular, I might add, when people dump a dozen loosely-related ideas into your brain with no regard whatsoever for how much effort it will take you to sort them all out. If I were in a blame-shifting mood I’d be pointing at Dave, Luke, David and these dinners we periodically have, which should say I go into expecting a good meal and some stimulating conversation and leave feeling like a glutton who’s been tasered in the brain.

“Interesting” doesn’t scale without a fight, is I guess what I’m saying.

So let’s get right to the heavy stuff: let’s say, apropos of nothing, for argument’s sake, that “sin” is a explicit negative valuation of an act without immediate cost. Did I couch that in enough conditionals? Well, you’re the one reading it. Let that be a lesson to you then.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about belief, narrative and cost lately, and the idea of sins and punishment in economic terms. Not necessarily with respect to actual money, but more by borrowing the terminology of economics to frame some ideas. Some actions have costs, you know? And some of those costs aren’t obvious, or aren’t immediately accrued, but they’re nevertheless real. So let’s say, just for the sake of saying so, that social capital and political capital are real, and that to some extent you can treat them, or at least describe the space around them, a lot like regular old capital capital.

This is going to be shorter than I wanted, but I’ve been struggling to get this out of my system for weeks.

We understand this, viscerally, when we’re talking about personal debts. We get that with ideas like “playing fair” or “I cut, you choose”. We largely agree that justice worthy of the name isn’t arbitrary or capricious and that cruel and unusual punishment is bad. But there’s this whole class of acts that certain groups of people are proscribed from doing, not for any obviously consequential reason, but because for no reason anyone alive remembers, that’s a sin. Or a taboo, or proscribed, you just don’t do that.

So I’ve got this notion that the founding conceit of act thus labeled is likewise an economic one, an “externality“: a cost that is otherwise unaccounted for. In this context, a story of divine punishment for a sinful act isn’t going to be a literal occurrence any more than political capital is real capital, but in a sense it’s a price tag regardless – your act has a real cost, and in a full accounting you will be made to bear that cost. You may not accrue that cost yourself, maybe not today, and you might even come out ahead. But if everyone does it, then all this falls apart; it’s a price to avoid the perverse incentives that steer towards a “tragedy of the social commons”, for lack of a better term.

Oddly enough, to some extent a belief in the existence or agency of some final arbiter is irrelevant – it’s sufficient for a moral person to know those cost exists, whether or not they believe they will ultimately bear them. The implication being that sin can exist without religion, which is the kind of conclusion you get to reach when you’re just making up arbitrary sociocultural taxonomies on the fly.

But the cannier among you will be saying right now “who is everyone, and what is this ‘all this’ you speak of”, and my somewhat wishy-washy answer is “that depends”. If everyone-who-goes-to-church just stopped going to church on Sunday would Christianity be worse off? It’s hard to say, but the church-as-institution might. And to be clear I’m not saying that’s good, bad, relevant, indifferent or purple. I’m wondering about the things you’re just Not Allowed To Do, whether they’re proscribed by your religion or your church group or your workplace culture or the dirty looks your cats give you, and the notion that we shouldn’t just take these impositions for granted. What I’m really interested in looking at those situations through this lens and trying, at a minimum, to understand and account for real costs, of time, effort and goodwill. Mine and others’.

Have you seen Merlin Mann’s Time And Attention talk? You really should; it’s a great talk, and there’s a couple of bits in there that have been rattling around in my brain for weeks. There’s a pretty distressing number of great points in there, but there’s three I want to pull out for attention:


“If you don’t manage your time well, you won’t make great stuff. But if you don’t manage your attention well, you won’t make great stuff.”


“If I just grabbed you in the street and asked ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’, you’d probably say your family or, your church group, or your career. Maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is… in some part of your heart that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense of how well your time and attention tracks to doing good stuff for that thing you say is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing you claim is important really important? Because if a lot of people looked at where their time and attention went, the parts they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.”

And (3):

“Saying you have more than two priorities is like saying you have more than two arms. You still only have two, but now you’re also crazy.”

You should really watch the whole thing. I’ll get back to it shortly.

Somewhat Skeptical

Maya’s learning awfully fast these days in that scary, scattershot way that kids soak up the firehose of information the world points at them every day. And apropos narrative through the terminology of economics? Children’s stories, jeebus, here we go.

We’re very clearly getting close to the point where the stories I tell Maya stop being the random noises that Dad makes before she goes to sleep and start having words and sentences and eventually morals and significance in them, so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the lessons she’ll hopefully learn from them. They may not be exactly what it says on the box, I’ve noticed; I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how these stories look from the child’s perspective, not least from that of a child being addressed by a parent.

It’s been kind of distressing at times.

Some kids’ books are more amusingly phonetic than instructive, some others are about the equally important learning to count (and even those ones impart some notion of value in what’s described as “good” or not) but a few of I’ve pretty much decided to stop reading to Maya on account of their completely ignoring their ostensible target audience in ways that end up seeming petty, mean, weird, creepy or worse.

Two in particular: “Guess How Much I Love You” (apparently a sentimental favorite in my family) has a moral which looks, from an adult perspective, to be about telling your child how much you care about them, but if you’re in that smaller chair comes across as “Guess How Much Smaller You Are Than I Am” which when you’re trying to plant the seeds of a moral framework is not exactly on-message. The other, “Runaway Bunny” is worse: in-house we refer to it as “Guess How Fast I’ll Fucking Find You”; put yourself in that other, smaller chair and yeah, it turns out when you’re trying to get the hell away from somebody it stops being loving and heartfelt and starts being weird and aggro-stalkerish.

“You should put up with that sort of person”, as a lesson for my daughter, is simply not on. Unfortunately the alternate ending where the big bunny gets a broken nose and a restraining order doesn’t seem to be in print. Alas.

I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this, but historically when I say that I am frequently informed that, yes, I am in fact the only person who thinks that. But people are vulnerable to narrative, especially young people, especially children. Maybe I’m being paranoid and overprotective; an odd thing for somebody who’s let his one-year-old play with his electric screwdriver but skinned knees heal, you know? Some ideas are forever. And while for the most part I think that vulnerability is a feature, not a bug, I still think I should be careful. People tell each other a lot of stuff that’s dumb or false or both just ’cause it’s entertaining or dramatic, sure. But it’s also how we learn, without each of us needing to rediscover it, that fire burns, steel cuts and even if the creepy guy offers you candy you don’t get into the van. And unless you’ve heard the story before, you might not know about (you guessed it) those hidden costs.

And here we are evaluating costs again.

You don’t have to be at any lofty height before this all starts to blur together, and that’s pretty much where I am now. I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out where my time and effort goes, where it doesn’t go, and making the costs of those tradeoffs as blindingly obvious as I can. I send a lot less email, and I’m cautious about what I do send, because there are these huge opportunity costs and externalities to imposing yourself on other people’s time. I’ve been trying to schedule short, sharp meetings with people, and ask them if they need it to book it with me. And when I go home, I go home; I lock my phone to keep myself from reflexively checking it during dinner, because email and twitter aren’t Maya and Arlene, and mostly look at work stuff until I get back to it the next day.

But mostly I’m trying to make 100% of my attention go, for real, and for real stretches of time, towards the stuff I think is actually important. And a big part of how I’m trying to do that is by doing my best to understand other people’s perspectives, to tell compelling stories about what’s important to me, and to act as though their time and effort and attention are as scarce and valuable as mine.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

May 16, 2010

The Power Of The Name

Walking home from an excellent dinner the other day the subject of the Name or True Name came up, a recurring idea in most fantasy literature; the idea that you have one True Name, pronounced just so, is both Yours and which has Power over you. It’s something that’s come up a lot in my thinking lately, as both a parent and as a sysadmin; part of my job, in both cases, is the granting of names.


As a parent, the Name is something you hammer into your kid, over and over again, all the time. Whether it’s good or bad or encouraging or get away from there or don’t touch that, you always start with the name, and then the rest; Maya well done, Maya don’t do this, Maya we’re proud of you, Maya stop. For sysadmins, in contrast, naming machines is an underappreciated responsibility; machines develop personalities if you’re not careful, idiosyncrasies built on a history of patch levels, shifting roles, legacy software, environmental conditions and the habits and discipline of their administrators. In that sense as with parenting the subject is a living, evolving Rorshach test, ultimately becoming those things it is shown, and the ways it is treated.

If you’ve got a small shop, it’s OK if machines get a little quirky; resources get repurposed, your air isn’t always cool and dry, power isn’t always clean and sometimes you’ve got to put long-retired, senescent old warhorses back on the front lines because it’s turned into that kind of war. But in a big installation that’s something you just can’t afford, and we put thousands of hours of planning effort into preventing machines from getting finicky; those machines are culled from the herd fast, because idiosyncratic machines are a sign of deep-seated systemic problems. And when those problems finally surface they’re inevitably going to be horrible.

The Flight Out

And to some extent, the Name is the seed of all that; a machine called HP-WWW-DEV-RH4-R5-S11-A simply isn’t going to be permitted to develop a personality; it’s going to get treated very differently than a repurposed workstation called “Snorklewhacker”. And it occurs to me just now that maybe that’s the deeper reason for the old myth that you should never rename a boat; not so much that you shouldn’t rename it as you shouldn’t dramatically change your behavior towards it, forcing the hardware to bend and stress in ways it’s never had to before.

So I’m increasingly finding myself feeling very cautious about the tone of voice I use with Maya, particularly when I’m trying to teach her her own name at the same time as I’m trying to teach her not to throw food on the floor or herself down the stairs. She needs to know her name; it’s my responsibility to make sure she does. But it’s a Name, it’s hers, and it’s not to be invoked lightly or something she should be taught to fear; parents don’t exactly have the luxury of a bare-metal reinstall or cheap upgrades, it turns out.

April 8, 2010

How I Will Be Rolling

Filed under: analog,interfaces,toys — mhoye @ 8:53 am

Huge Steel Geometries

I mentioned a while back that I was looking to buy a bike and thinking about a single-speed/fixed-gear thing so I asked an old friend of mine who happens to have owned a bike store for twenty years or so what he thought of the idea. That conversation went something like this:

“Fixie, eh? Got any knee problems?”

“Yeah, some. Why?”

“Well, that’ll make ’em worse in a hurry.”

“Ah. Well, the bike I’m looking at has one of those flip-flop hubs on the back. So it’s not just a fixie.”

“Well, that’s a single-speed, that’s different. You’re not planning on carrying anything, are you?”

“I was thinking of towing my daughter around, in one of those chariot things.”

“On a single-speed? Are you living on the prairies these days?”

“Not exactly. The trails I’ll be on will mostly be around the Don Valley in Toronto.”

“Yeah, no.”

Okay, then.

So now I’m getting one of these, which seems like a very good fit. It’s got some things I like very, very much about modern bikes, the foremost being Shimano’s “megarange” cog on the back, so if you want it you’ve got enough mechanical advantage to pedal it up a ladder without breathing too hard. It’s got a narrowish drop bar, which is nice, a much sturdier body than the usual racing frame will give you and some very interesting disc brakes, which are the kind of thing you don’t need until you try, and then can’t ever do without. All told it seems like it makes a lot of sensible weight/durability tradeoffs, and once I get some decent pedals for it (and I can’t recommend those clipless-on-one-side-only pedals enough, they’re great) it should be a pretty good bike. I’ll need to replace all the quick-release stuff with security bolts, because that’s how this city works, but I’m OK with that.

November 26, 2009

A Thousand Roads To Nowhere

Filed under: analog,doom,future,interfaces,life,lunacy,travel — mhoye @ 1:15 am

One Stem

This has been making the rounds recently, an article on how America is all infrastructure, and no people. It’s trite, but the old line about the difference between European and North American cities is that European cities were built for people; the cars got there later. In North America it’s the other way around.

So, cities are built for cars and the people get there later, but what if the people never get there? Turns out, we have an answer for that now. Take a look at this.

Google’s street view of this is fantastic, particularly if you slide back up from it to an overhead view of what’s around you. There’s nothing there, nothing but sand and old road.

The same thing has happened here; a city laid out for cars where the people never showed up. It’s incredibly bleak, and of all the things you can read into this I think what strikes me most is the utter disdain for organic growth and the incredible confidence in the planned-out city being the inevitable future. Why else would you put down that much asphalt? But then nothing happened. And ultimately, it wouldn’t really matter if it had – the organic, human aspect always wins eventually. You wouldn’t think so – it’s a big, planned coherent thing, it looks like it should work! – but it never does.

It occurs to me that this is a judgement on the citizenry, carved into the landscape; these are cities that fundamentally don’t trust their own residents with the reins of the future. I really hope we can add that to the pile of the last century’s bad ideas and walk away from it.

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